Getting an early jump on the deer hunt

by Jeff Gustafson | April 11, 2015

Rub area
As I walked over the hill, I could finally see the boat. My buddy Dave Bennett and I had been on a major shed hunting and scouting mission all day that took us into several swamps, up and down big hills, and through some nasty thickets. I was worn out.

On this nice April day, however, it was well worth the effort. We both had a backpack full of sheds and we’d found some great-looking deer signs in a few areas that had potential for the upcoming fall hunting season.

Since 2005, when I started hunting for sheds, I’ve spent as much time as possible in the woods in the spring. There’s no better time to learn about the country you’re hunting than immediately after the snow melts. All the rut signs from the previous season are still visible, so you get a good understanding of where activity is taking place. Finding fresh sheds can also indicate a buck is in the vicinity.

Minerals or salt
Dan Cole shares a recipe that he uses throughout the summer to attract deer to his game cameras. “If I put out something in the spring, I want it to help both bucks and does,” said Cole, who doesn’t use salt. “This mixture is good for both lactating does and antler growth in bucks, and it can be made for about $40. I’ll mix a 50-pound bag of dicalcium phosphate, a 50-pound bag of stock salt, and a 50-pound bag of trace mineral, the one with less salt content. Evenly mix and you have enough to place in four or five different locations. Dig a hole in the ground, dump the mineral in, and cover with dirt. Add a game camera to monitor the spot for the summer and watch the bucks grow.”

Once you find the right areas, it’s time to do some work. Things like brushing lanes, cutting trails, finding the best trees for your trail cams and tree stands, and choosing the spot for your ground blind can be done much less conspicuously than in the days leading up to the fall hunt.

What to Look For
Most hunters hunt the same spots year after year. We get attached to the places we’ve spent time in and where we’ve harvested an animal.

Typically, we only look for new locations if we lose access to existing areas or change our hunting goals and want improved opportunities. But to consistently harvest big, mature whitetails we need to be constantly on the lookout for new areas.

Use an online mapping program to find potential hotspots, talk to people who hunt in the area, and check with the local taxidermist. Gather whatever information you can and start piecing it together to find those few square kilometres of quality deer country.

Importance of scouting
You really want to keep your eyes peeled for telltale signs of big bucks. Walk along deer trails as much as you can, and watch for scrapes and rubs. Big scrapes are also worth noting — I’m talking about the ones that are four or five feet wide and dug into the ground. These community scrapes are likely being used year after year by several bucks.

My friend Dan Cole from Minnesota has been deer hunting in northwestern Ontario for many years and has harvested more big whitetails than anyone I know. In the spring, he spends time scouting the vast expanses of public land in search of a couple of high-percentage areas to hunt that fall.

There’s a five-day window in the spring between when the snow melts and the ground totally thaws out.

“There’s a five-day window in the spring between when the snow melts and the ground totally thaws out,” says Cole. “This is prime time to be in the woods because across the north, the ground freezes within the first week or two of November and all the rut sign and the best trails are frozen into the ground until spring. During the spring you can find all of this vital information without kicking the deer out of its core area.”

Get the jump
Once you’ve located a few good-looking areas to hunt, it’s time to put the work boots on. I’m a strong believer in cutting all the trails into my stands, trimming the shooting lanes and attending to other chores early in the year. They can be fine-tuned closer to the season.

You’ll be faced with different wind directions over the course of the season, so be prepared for everything. On some of my absolute best spots, I’ll put up two stands, one on the north side (the area we’re watching) and one on the south side, so we can hunt under different conditions.

Finding the right tree is important for a tree stand too. You want it to be perfectly straight and preferably a balsam, cedar, or spruce. In cold weather, birch or poplar trees can freeze, making them difficult and dangerous to climb. The other advantage of coniferous trees is that they provide a bit of cover from rain and snow. Bring in a ladder and trim the tree to the spot where you’ll place your stand in the fall.

Finally, it’s advisable to break a trail into your spot, so that you can be as silent as possible when heading into your stand in the dark. If there are other hunters around, you might want to start your trail 20 or 30 metres from the road so you don’t give away your spot. Most people who are scouting will follow a trail if they find one.

Make time in the spring to head out and learn as much as you can about the areas you plan to hunt. It’s fun after a long winter, and it will increase your chances for success in the fall.

This is a condensed version of an article originally published in the April 2013 edition of Ontario OUT of DOORS.